Few people today know how close the world came to disaster in May 1941. Adolf Hitler came within a whisker of winning World War II. He basically lost it because he took on too many enemies at once, but in that month, it was still just him and Britain at war. The German navy thought they had the perfect plan to bring the war to a conclusion right before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Britain needed unceasing convoys of imports to sustain her people and her war effort, so the Kriegsmarine decided to strangle her with its most powerful weapon, the battleship Bismarck. The world’s most powerful warship would go up the North Sea, sail between Greenland and Iceland, and then sink as much of Britain’s precious cargo as it wanted.
Part of what made this so exciting was that it was a desperate enterprise on both sides. The British had more ships, so the Bismarck had to avoid being caught at all costs, but if she could take the Royal Navy on one ship at a time, victory was all but assured. The Bismarck had an inestimable advantage (gun-control advocates, take note): the British had abided by the naval limitation treaties when they had designed their ships while the Germans had flagrantly ignored them. The British ships could match the Bismarck’s firepower, but they had had to make cuts in tonnage somewhere, so their ships had smaller, slower engines. If the Bismarck could just reach the vastness of the North Atlantic, she could commerce-raid with all but impunity.
Once the British detected the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen with their radar in the Denmark Strait, which lies between Greenland and Iceland, the battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship Prince of Wales steamed to intercept her. The breath-taking Hood had acquired an illustrious reputation before the war, but the British squadron had some serious disadvantages. The Prince of Wales was still under construction, with civilian contractors still working on her as she sailed to the battle, and the Hood, for the sake of speed, had very thin deck armor. The British planned to make up for this by rushing in close to minimize plunging fire, but they lost contact with the Germans in the night and had to grope their way in from the side. This meant that the Germans had the very advantageous position of “crossing the British T.” The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could send plunging fire at the British from all their guns while the British could only reply with their forward-facing turrets.
The battle was a brief, vicious disaster. The Bismarck blew the Hood up, killing all but 3 of her crew of 1,400, and the Prince of Wales had to retreat with a jammed turret. The British public was shocked, and the way into the North Atlantic was open- or was it? In the brief exchange of gunfire, the British had scored one good hit in the Bismarck’s fuel tanks. Instead of turning her loose in the open ocean, the German admiral had to put in for repairs in France. Strategically, this was more of an inconvenience than anything else, since the Bismarck could leave France into the Atlantic as soon as she was repaired.
As the other British ships scrambled to catch the Bismarck, the British had to call in airpower. In this they were still badly handicapped. Their search planes were the modern American-built PBY Catalinas, but their torpedo bombers were Swordfish biplanes, little more advanced than a World War I fighter. They were slow and fired only one torpedo. The British launched an air strike, but it did nothing to stop the Bismarck, which soon eluded them. The only good news was that the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft guns had been designed to shoot at faster, more modern planes, so they couldn’t be adjusted slow enough to hit the Swordfish. That was, no doubt, small comfort when the Bismarck got away with minimal damage from one torpedo hit. After a tense search, an American pilot found the Bismarck in his Catalina, but the news wasn’t promising.
By the evening of May 26, it must have looked to the British like the war was lost. The Bismarck was too far ahead for any British ship to catch her, and in the morning, she would be in range of air cover from France. The Luftwaffe could chew up the antiquated Swordfish like sardines, so the British needed what Ludovic Kennedy called, “a miracle.” With enough daylight left for one final strike, the British sent the Swordfish out again.
And they got their miracle! The last torpedo fired- the last torpedo the British couldfire- hit the Bismarck in just about its only vulnerable spot. The Bismarck’s only real design flaw was that she couldn’t steer using her propellers rather than her rudder. By something too coincidental and earth-shaking to be called mere Chance, the British torpedo had hit the Bismarck’s rudder just as the ship was turning and stuck it in a course back to the British fleet. Other ships might have manipulated their propellers into changing course, but the Bismarck couldn’t. In an instant the war had gone from being hopelessly lost to being winnable!
The next morning, the British set upon the Bismarck with their battleships HMS King George V and Rodney, as well as several smaller vessels. The Bismarck didn’t stand a chance. The British shells shredded her until the Germans scuttled the ship to avoid capture. Germany would never again come so close to defeating Britain. In a month she had made the catastrophic blunder of attacking the Soviet Union, and by year’s end she had declared war on the US.
A godly Presbyterian once said, “He who doesn’t see the hand of God in this is blind,” and I think much the same can be said of that torpedo. The British had only the remotest chance of catching the Bismarck at that point, and they scored the one hit that could do it just under the wire. From a Presbyterian point of view, God does things the hard way like this so He can demonstrate His wisdom and power to redound to His glory. I’ll explore, Lord willing, this unpopular belief in a future post, so stay tuned. In the meantime, whenever you’re discouraged and feel like giving up from doing the right thing, think of that providential torpedo hit that saved the world at the last possible second.